Great research, vivid writing, historical context – the best true crime can give compelling insight into the kind of personalities that commit notorious crimes. In no particular order, here are 10 true-crime books that I particularly admire…
Oswald’s Tale by Norman Mailer 1995
Forget the grassy knoll, mafia hitmen, Castro malcontents, CIA plotters – it was Lee Harvey Oswald what done it. Norman Mailer created a convincing portrait of a pathetic nobody who wanted to make a name for himself. He’d flirted with celebrity by ‘defecting’ to Russia in 1959, marrying a Russian, and attempting to shoot a general. Then, when he heard the President’s motorcade was passing the book depot where he’d just got a job, he reached for his $22 rifle. An unforgettable book.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara 2018
Not many true-crime authors can be said to have solved a historic case. Michelle McNamara, however, may eventually get some credit for the arrest made last year in the Golden State Killer investigation. She was a journalist who wrote here of her obsession with this grotesque series of home rapes and then murders. Sadly, the author died before the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, a former cop suspected or 50 rapes, 13 murders and many burglaries. However, her proposal for the use of ancestral DNA and geographic profiling may have played a part in the police taking a new approach to the unsolved case. An absolutely must-read, genre-busting book.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale 2008
Kate Summerscale found and brought to life a remarkable, hidden crime story from Wiltshire, 1860. The Kent family awake one morning in their beautiful country home to make a horrific discovery – the brutal murder of three-year-old Saville Kent. The original country-house murder mystery, it became a national sensation. Much more than a crime story, however, the book is a gripping time journey into Victorian England. It gives us an extraordinary prototype detective in Jack Whicher – who didn’t get his villain – and a fascinating end story. A haunting, engrossing case.
Handsome Brute by Sean O’Connor 2013
Why do people read true crime? Probably to learn about, wonder at and be appalled by figures such as Neville Heath. He’s the former-RAF playboy and conman who after a lifetime of cheating, lying and fleeing justice, eventually turned to murder. His trial in 1946 fascinated and horrified Britain. Not sure I agree with the author’s emphasis on Heath’s wartime trauma as a significant factor in his homicidal endgame – he was a callous abuser of people before that – but this is a superb portrait of the period and one of its darkest figures.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann 2017
Shocking account of the way in which members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma were targeted and murdered once oil was discovered beneath their land in the 1920s. The perpetrators of this deep conspiracy also murdered many of those who tried to investigate it. David Grann introduces us to some fascinating figures, from victims to agents in the fledgling FBI – in particular former Texas Ranger Tom White – to the sinister, bespectacled cattleman William Hale. An emotional and haunting account of a terrible racist plot.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson 2003
HH Holmes was truly terrifying. This was a serial killer who didn’t skulk round dark alleys to find victims. Instead, he built a hotel with secret rooms and passages in which to snare and murder female guests. Unusually, Erik Larson counterpoints Holmes’s chilling murder campaign with wider historical events. These are the efforts of architect Daniel H Burnham to build a ‘White City’ for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. An entrepreneur of death, Holmes erected his hotel to attract the influx of female visitors drawn to Burnham’s beautiful fair. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of Holmes’s crimes.
Catching a Serial Killer by Stephen Fulcher 2017
In 2011 a 22-year-old woman called Sian O’Callaghan failed to return home from a night out in Swindon. This is former Detective Superintendent Stephen Fulcher’s account of his team’s hunt for her, and how he eventually confronted cab driver Christopher Halliwell. It also explores the dilemma Fulcher faced. Hoping Sian was still alive and Halliwell might lead police to her, Fulcher got a murder confession from the cabbie before cautioning him for a third time and reminding him he could have legal representation. Fulcher unmasked a serial killer, but got punished for breaking the rules. A gripping account, and one that exposes some hypocrisy by the police hierarchy and the fact that the PACE rules probably need reform.
Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper by Michael Bilton 2012
Huge, detailed and finely written probe into the infamously badly run investigation to find the Yorkshire Ripper. Michael Bilton lays out all the vital data about the case, and interviews many who were involved. He reveals how the police operation got badly bogged down in wrong decisions and prejudiced thinking, allowing Peter Sutcliffe to continue his vile crimes. The book has been updated to include recent developments surrounding his incarceration. Incredibly, Sutcliffe has been hoping to be freed.
Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK? by Geoffrey Robertson 2013
If anyone thinks we Brits live a fair-minded democracy where the rule of law ensures justice for all, read this and learn the truth. When those in power are out to get someone, they get them and the cover-up is total. Geoffrey Robertson is a QC who argues powerfully that Stephen Ward was the victim of a politically motivated act of vengeance. During the Profumo Scandal he was convicted of living off immoral earnings (Ward committed suicide after his trial). This book outlines the reasons for a legal appeal. It also exposes how the judicial establishment ganged up to ensure Ward did not get a fair trial.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule 1980
Ted Bundy has received a lot of media attention recently with the Netflix documentary and Zac Efron movie. The serial killer is one of the most grotesque murderers in recent history and Ann Rule was a writer able to offer a unique perspective on him. This was because she knew him and, chillingly, spent many evenings alone with him volunteering on a suicide hotline. Once the horror of his crimes emerged, she was still in touch with him and writes about the handsome, caring figure she knew, as opposed to the vile killer of young women. I found her capacity to give him the benefit of the doubt for so long to be irritating and irrational. However, this is undoubtedly an unforgettable portrait of a rapacious, dead-souled murderer.